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Monday Manifestos
The Greening of Chardonnay

By Charles Olken

Chardonnay is a tricky little devil. On one hand, it is often said by winemakers that it ferments like a red wine. On a second hand, some will tell you that the grape has a very plain personality on its own and needs extra attention in winemaking to become special. If you had a third hand, you would hold high-ripeness Chardonnay in it and taste a lot of glycerin and ripe apples, and in your fourth hand, you would hold low-ripeness Chardonnay that tastes of green pineapples and bristling acidity.

It is not that making Chardonnay is all that complicated. It is not nearly as finicky as Pinot Noir, for instance, but it does present the winemaker with challenges because it is like a clean palette waiting for the artist to choose the colors and then to apply them. How much apple? How much fresh fruit? How much roasted grains from lees-aging? How much oak? How much acidity? Do I push my Chardonnay through malo-lactic fermentation and get a smoother, softer feel on the palate or do I retain the malic acid and hold onto a brighter sensation?

And these decisions, and others, are not all made in the winery once the grapes have arrived. Critical decisions need to be made in the vineyard—decisions in which the winemakers are involved, like crop load and picking parameters (how ripe, how much natural acidity), also impact how the final product will taste.

And it is not like California winemakers have had a century and more to learn how to make these decisions. Just fifty years ago, there was so little Chardonnay here that its acreage was not measured separately, and the grape was lumped into the category of “other red varieties”.

When Chardonnay began to come onto the scene in the 1960s, there were two emerging styles. The first was a simple, wood tank aged, near generic tasting wine whose major virtue was that it was dry and somewhat rich. California really did not have white wines like that; most whites of the day came to market with noticeable sweetness. The second Chardonnay direction was what could be called “Burgundy Light”. It involved the use of oak-barrels from France for aging the wine and brought Chardonnay into the modern era. It was this style, still somewhat undeveloped but successful nonetheless, that propelled Chardonnay into the most important white grape we grow here in California.

Over the next several decades, producers improved the “recipe” with barrel fermentations, lees aging and stirring, increased ripeness and richness (often from vineyard decisions), and while there have always been variations on the theme, Chardonnay raced to the top of the heap based on a style that was no longer “Burgundy Light” but “Burgundy Heavy” or even “Burgundy Over The Top” in many instances. The same direction was taken by many Australian winemakers, and, we learned a separate identifier meant to eliminate references to France. Our wines became “New World” as if they no longer had any connection to France. Regardless of how true or not that proposition, might have been, it became de rigueur in some circles, to treat “New World” Chardonnay like some kind of bastard child, a “black sheep” of sorts not to be respected or enjoyed on its own but to be denigrated because it was no longer “Burgundian”. Never mind that people loved the new Chardonnay, many folks, especially those who think the French style is the style for them, often because that is what their wine teeth were weaned on, were put off by the new richness and fullness of the New World products.

As that movement, and the voices that propelled it, got bigger, louder, more noticeable, Chardonnay began to change again—for better and for worse. And it must be acknowledged that many producers here remained closer to the French model than they are being given credit for. But, it was the core of the Chardonnay producers who began to recognize that a little less ripeness and a little more acidity gave their wines more brightness, more liveliness and actually handled all that California richness quite well. We celebrate wines like Ramey, Freestone, Dutton Goldfield, MacRostie and dozens more whose approaches combine richness and inner energy.

It is not their efforts that concern me and bring me to the nub of this story. The title of this essay is “The Greening of Chardonnay”. It is an intentional play on words. On the one hand, it refers to the continuing success that Chardonnay enjoys in the marketplace. Despite a movement that refers to itself as ABC (Anything But Chardonnay), there is plenty of Chardonnay and people continue to love it even as its styles have evolved over the last four decades.

But, it is the other mean of “Greening” that can no longer be ignored and which threatens to bring Chardonnay down if it goes too far and we stop listening to the grapes. When winemakers ignore the fact that they are growing grapes and making wine in California, not Chablis, and try to tame the grape into something that resembles a style from somewhere else, they run into trouble. We saw the so-called “Food Wine” revolution of the mid-80s turn too many Chardonnays into thin, acidic, underripe potions whose attempts to taste more European simply made them into tasteless, “green” messes. Today, the “greening” of Chardonnay has the potential to take us there again. It is this threat to our most popular white wine which concerns me. Underripe is no more pleasant to taste than overripe. Poorly made wines with no oak are no interesting than poorly made wines with too much oak.

If we here in California want Chardonnay to remain “green” in the positive sense of the word, we cannot let it become “green” in the negative sense lest it once again repeat the mistakes of the 1980s and turn into a wine that people do not like. We have a good thing going on here in California with our Chardonnay. In trying to make it even better, we do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The baby is just fine. All we need to do is to adjust the temperature a little.

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